Last week, we reissued our most adorable episode to date, featuring Seattle second graders dancing to “YMCA” and composing their own music. If you haven’t listened to “Paintings to Sing,” you can do so right here. If you have, read on!
The first time I heard this episode, I was taken by the idea that all children could learn music composition, whether or not they have a special aptitude for, say, the violin. This one Seattle classroom is not the only place where people are teaching music in this way. Morton Subotnick is a composer and an early pioneer of electronic music. He also develops technology for early music education. He thinks kids should be able to create music without knowing standard music notation. He told The Guardian, “You wouldn't prevent children from expressing themselves in paint before they've learned to draw, so why shouldn't they be able to compose without reading music?" Subotnick invented an iPad app called Pitch Painter, which is exactly what it sounds like: more paintings to sing. This time the iPad “sings” your composition back to you. You can watch the app in action below:
Subotnick’s approach to education strikes me as a little revolutionary. Music ed can feel very rigid and full of obstacles to overcome before you get to the fun stuff. Before you can play music, you must learn to read it. Before you can compose music, you must learn music theory. If you’re in college, you can’t study other genres before you master the principles of western classical music in Theory 101. That barrier alone weeds out plenty of aspiring music majors, myself included. To me, music theory is like math, my brain just doesn’t want to think that way. That’s also why I quit piano as a kid. I never stopped singing though, because singing is innate. Subotnick is saying that composition can be innate as well.
To be clear, I’m not knocking music theory, nor do I suggest that kids shouldn’t learn to read music. But Subotnick is right; reading music is not a prerequisite for composing music, even after you graduate from finger painting. I can’t think of a better example of innate composition than the songwriting process of Ester Dean. She is the woman behind some of this decades most infectious hooks, writing for Rihanna, Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, and so on. In a 2012 profile for The New Yorker, John Seabrook explains that Dean doesn’t sit down at a keyboard to plunk out a melody and she never puts pen to staff paper:
“Dean’s preferred method of working is to delay listening to a producer’s track until she is in the studio, in front of the mike. ‘I go into the booth and I scream and I sing and I yell, and sometimes it’s words but most time it’s not. And I just see when I get this little chill, here’—she touched her upper arm, just below the shoulder—’and then I’m, like, ‘Yeah, that’s the hook.’’ If she doesn’t feel that chill after five minutes, she moves on to the next track, and tries again.”
Dean isn’t the only songwriter to work this way. Sia Furler is another prolific hit-maker who can’t read music. She “writes” by scatting over a track until words and melodies coalesce into song.
In “Paintings to Sing,” the teacher cites academic development as her motivation for integrating music into the curriculum. I certainly think that’s important, but the most thrilling thing about Alex’s episode is that young children are being told they don’t need to wait to create their own music. They can do it now. Those second graders might not all grow up to compose but I hope they might be like the Tavi Gevinsons and Kanye Wests of the world—people who never wait for permission or “proper” training to start creating things. They always just create.
Make art! As they say.